After years of blood, sweat and tears – including a dangerous US-Mexico border crossing – Nataly Morales Villa’s parents are the prime example of immigrant success. The only 26-year-old daughter not only has two bachelor’s degrees, but also recently a master’s degree in education from Harvard University.
She’s the first in her family (she has 41 cousins!) to graduate from high school and college — an accomplishment she credits to her mother, her greatest source of inspiration.
“She worked very hard in a chicken processing plant – she woke up at 4 a.m. every day and worked eight to 10 hour shifts of manual labour. Despite being busy, she still comes home to cook for me. That’s why I dedicated everything to her after I graduated,” Villa explains.
We caught up with Villa to learn more about her background, her college experience at Harvard University, and her plans for the future.
Hello Natalie. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born in Mexico in a village called El Mezquital Durango. I was five years old when I immigrated to the United States. I grew up in Gainesville, Georgia, also known as the Poultry Capital of the World because of the area’s poultry crops that have attracted dozens of Latino immigrants.
Currently, 42% of the population in Gainesville is Latin X. 30 years ago it was mostly white, so the demographics of the community I grew up in have changed so much.
I received my bachelor’s degree from the University of North Georgia, where I earned a degree in Political Science and a Certificate in Spanish Translation. I am fluent in Spanish and English and understand some Portuguese.
Congratulations on your recent graduation from Harvard University! Tell us about your decision to pursue a Masters in Education.
Many Thanks. It has been a tremendous journey, to say the least. I firmly believe that education is liberation. Back in Mexico, my parents had no opportunity to pursue an education beyond middle school. My grandparents didn’t have a chance to pursue it past elementary school due to the poverty they grew up in.
The small village I grew up in follows traditional gender roles, so women were not encouraged to pursue college education. Instead, they were encouraged to marry and have children.
In the US, I became the first person in my family to graduate from high school, a bachelor’s degree, and eventually a master’s degree from Harvard in Education Administration, which still sounds surreal.
Could you walk us through your Harvard University application process? How did you feel when you found out you were accepted into one of the best universities in the world?
My journey was unique in that I applied during the pandemic. In March, COVID-19 happened. In May, I saw news that the Harvard Graduate School of Education had decided to reopen their application cycle online because of COVID-19.
So in a month I gathered and submitted all my information and essay references. And in June I decided, ‘You know what, let me do it; Lets see what happens; Let me keep my fingers crossed.”
On July 31, 2020, my mom and I were on a plane to Mexico to babysit my grandparents when I received an email saying an admissions decision had been made. I was like, ‘Oh my god, should I open it now? The plane is about to take off. Should I wait until I’m with my parents in Mexico? Would I be accepted? What if I don’t? You know, things were going crazy in my head.”
I decided to open the email just before the plane took off. It said, “Congratulations. You’ll be accepted into the Harvard Graduate School of Education.” And I cried my eyes out. I cried and hugged my mom more than anything and thought about her sacrifices as an immigrant mother—she had to risk her life crossing the US-Mexico border illegally so she could offer me better opportunities. It was such an emotional feeling.
What did you like about the university?
I really enjoyed how diverse Harvard is. It was the first time I had a Latino professor and a black professor.
During my bachelor’s degree, I attended a predominantly white institution. Growing up, from kindergarten through high school, I never had a Latino counselor or teacher. My bachelor’s degree was the first time I met a Latino counselor and mentor.
When I first got to the Harvard campus, I enjoyed seeing so many representations. I enjoyed hearing students speak so many languages and not just Spanish.
Back home, unfortunately, it’s still a very conservative community. People don’t always like to look at you because you speak Spanish, so I felt very welcomed to see students from international backgrounds speaking other languages.
What was your most memorable course and why? How did the lecturers support you in your studies?
Unfortunately I had to start online because of the pandemic. My favorite class was a negotiation class that I took.
I have long been interested in how to become a better negotiator in terms of salary or career. In the US, Latinas earn about $0.57 for every dollar a white male earns. You are already underpaid especially immigrant women with no formal education.
The course has given me more confidence in my negotiation skills – it showed me how to negotiate salaries, personal matters and, you know, family. In Latinx culture, we have very close-knit, tight-knit family circles that sometimes have a lot of drama and emotion.
How did your Harvard education make you who you are today?
Something I didn’t think I would become was an entrepreneur. I took an entrepreneurship course and an educational marketplace, and that’s how my little entrepreneurship bugs started.
I am starting a website to be a motivational speaker and to provide counseling and counseling services to students. I would like to sell graduation stoles that artisans in my hometown would embroider and personalize. For my graduation, my stole was personalized with a Mexican flag, my name, social media name, class, and graduation year. It is a dream come true to be able to represent my culture and my country with a personal style.
Tell us more about your decision to pursue your chosen programs at the University of North Georgia and Universidad Andina del Cusco
I chose Political Science and Spanish because, due to my family background, I originally wanted to be an immigration lawyer.
I am very, very grateful that I will be a US citizen. My mother has status now too. I have always been inspired to give back to my community by being an immigration attorney.
I chose the Spanish Translation Certificate because my parents always taught me the importance of not forgetting my language and culture. I also wanted to perfect my writing in Spanish. So for me they were important. I am now a certified Spanish translator.
But when I graduated I realized that I wasn’t looking forward to law school because I had to study for the LSAT, and overall I felt at the time that law school wasn’t for me.
Instead, I was always super engaged at my undergraduate institution. I absolutely loved working with students and for me, access to a college education is the way to end the generational cycle of poverty, misogyny and alcoholism (it happened to my family).
Can you tell us about your experience as a US immigrant?
Unfortunately, one of the greatest challenges was watching my father succumb to alcoholism. That’s why my mother became a single mother – she didn’t speak English and had a very limited education in Mexico. She grew up in a very large traditional Mexican family. She was one of eleven siblings.
After discovering during the pandemic that my father had been diagnosed with a terminal illness due to his alcoholism, I reconnected with him. I’m glad we reconnected and honored his last wishes.
In addition to your studies, you have also completed various jobs and internships. Tell us about your most memorable experience. What are some of the challenges you faced?
I got an internship at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. It was amazing because they are an organization specifically geared towards increasing the representation of Latino students in Congress and they paid for everything.
It was there that I experienced impostor syndrome. As I walked through the convention halls, I saw no people who looked like me or had my background. “What is a girl born in a Mexican village doing here?” I thought to myself. All these ideas and doubts went through my head.
But now I know I belonged there – my lived experiences were just as valuable as those from different backgrounds. I know that being a Latina immigrant has offered such a valuable perspective.
what are your plans now
I’ve gone through various interviews and am now waiting for results so fingers crossed.
My dream job would be to work as a college recruiter specifically for a big tech company like Google, TikTok, Facebook or Instagram. University recruiters travel to various universities for conferences or across the country to find talented students to onboard for internships, scholarships or early careers.
I would very much like to be a recruiter – I want to identify potential employees, especially first generation students, students who are underrepresented in the private sector and in the technology sector, and students who don’t even know these jobs exist.
Do you have any advice you would like to share with other students, especially those who are not of color or from underrepresented communities?
I always say: find a mentor. There will always be someone who looks like you. Because of this, we need more color students to graduate and become first-generation professionals. When you achieve that, you give back by becoming the mentor who was there for you.
Don’t be afraid to knock on the door – when one door closes, knock on the other, and another, and another, because eventually one will open.
Don’t be afraid to reach out on LinkedIn – there’s always someone on social media who may not have the same background or looks as you but would appreciate a simple message. Connect with them – introduce yourself and tell them you’d like to learn more about their career path. Don’t be afraid to connect, ask questions, and ask for help.